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Antoinette Knesevich, Bethlehem

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 08.12.2011:


March, 2008

Let me introduce myself. I am a Palestinian and was born in Beit Jala in 1934. My family originates from Austria and came to Palestine in 1885. My husband, Henry Knesevich, was born in Gaza and was son of Alexander Antonio Knesevich, the first British consul in Gaza during the British occupation. Henry was the director for the Hebron and Jerusalem areas of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in the 1950s and he built his home next to Rachel’s Tomb, close to the main road in Bethlehem. For 20 years I served as a music and art teacher with UNRWA in Aida refugee camp, close to my home.

At the time of the passing away of my husband, in 1978, I took a close look at myself and where I was in life. My husband’s passing away turned my life upside down. Physically my body became sick. In a way, my life followed my husband into the grave. Then I began to think how I wished to continue in life. My two sisters in law were aged 96 and 82. I was 42. I felt responsible for their care because I had promised to take care of them. My thoughts were many. After a time, I switched my thoughts. I have a deep faith in G-d. All my life I had turned the mirror to let darkness be light. I continued my responsibility lovingly and unconditionally and gave love to my sisters in law until they passed away. I discarded all the darkness from my life, all the clouds in my thought. I instilled in my inner self light, the light of happiness, working as a volunteer. In my mind I said, if I give them – all the old people, the handicapped, a small smile, it will return to me in their smiling back at me. They return the happiness to me.

Following the first Intifada at the end of the 1980s, I came to the Talitha Kumi school in Beit Jala as an arts teacher. I served as a volunteer in the Arab Society for the Handicapped, the Bethlehem Family Planning Society and the St Nicholas Home for the Elderly in Beit Jala. I am a member of the Anglican Church and was active in the St Georges’ Cathedral in Jerusalem, and a board member of the Dar al-Awlaad school in Jerusalem. However, I cannot go there now because of the Wall which is next to our house.

Now there is also a Wall in my heart. I am a dying lady. All Palestinians feel like they are dying. All of us are in prison. But still, like many, I keep this inner light. How?


The answer is music. My house is full of musical instruments…

The first instrument I learned was the mandolin. I played many hours together with my music teacher at St Joseph School, who played the piano. Later on I played with her beautiful classical pieces together on the piano, with four hands.

Augustine Lama, a noted pianist and organist at churches in Jerusalem, influenced me greatly. He used to listen and critique my playing. He helped me a great deal in the 1970s. He came from Jerusalem to Beit Jala to give lessons to seminarians in the Catholic Convent here. Then I brought him with my car to Rachel’s Tomb where he waited for the bus to Jerusalem.

I used to teach students songs, recitals and the Palestinian dabkeh dance. I also taught them various instruments, including percussion, flutes, xylophone, and the accordion. I encouraged them to form music groups and to participate at festivals at UNRWA schools.

I like to see and hear music around me. Among my pupils have been my niece and nephew, and the last has even become an excellent pianist. Once I made the music for a nationalist song at a school in Beit Sahour, and the Israeli occupation authorities forbade it…. Imagine!

Music is a language which all the people in the world can enjoy and read. With music I give my pupils joy and life.

The Wall next to my house divides people. Music brings people together.

Why does a vase of flowers give me a sad feeling?

Of course people here go through a lot of stress. Lately, women in a workshop in which I also participated told stories about soldiers who entered their homes and pointed their gun on children, or who demolished furniture. They talked about images of killed civilians on TV, and how that influenced children. One of the group even explained that her house was demolished after her son was taken by the Israeli army. Still another said that a few months ago she and her children could not sleep because the house of somebody living close to her was demolished during the night.

What can you do as a mother or grandmother for children living in such circumstances?

Here at home it was scary outside when there were shootings during the last Intifada, in 2001-2. It happened that I played the accordion with the children on the veranda so as not to keep them afraid because of the shootings over our house. I let them make drawings. When the shooting was heavy we used to go into the cellar of the house and then I also encouraged the children to draw and make music.

Not all stress is related to the political circumstances. Our workshop leader was surprised to hear how much homework children have to do here, already from the age of seven years on. The homework for the children adds to the other problems women feel. I also sometimes help the children of my family with their homework.

Palestinian women have to be strong to cope with all the stress. You need to have, what we call in Arabic, sumud, steadfastness or resilience.

In the workshop we were asked to choose two cards from a package: a card which gave a good feeling and one which gave a bad feeling. A nice game to learn about each other and yourself.

I chose the card with a ladder as the negative card. It’s simply risky for me to stand on a ladder at my age… As you can guess, a card with music notes was my positive card.

Afterwards I discovered another card, with a vase of flowers. For me that card gave a negative feeling. A negative feeling? – you will ask. Why so? Flowers are beautiful after all.

However, in the past I took care of the flowers in the Anglican church in Jerusalem. But since the building of the Wall I cannot anymore go to Jerusalem and to the church there. So flowers now make me sad. Can you imagine?

Checkpoint memory

The Wall, the checkpoints, they all the time come back in my present life. I lately was reminded of the following story when I passed the checkpoint from Bethlehem to Haifa, where I met Israeli women.

Once, in 1979, a pastor of the Anglican Church, Odeh Rantisi, called on me to join a group of Palestinian Christians traveling to Germany. I asked him how I could go after my husband had passed away just 11 months ago. He said that he needed me so I went with the group. We made our way from south to north in Germany, town by town, from Munich, through Winsbach, Karlsbad, and Kuttingen. We were giving talks about our problems as Palestinians. When we arrived in Kuttingen we had meetings with the mayor of the municipality in that area, a large district. We went to him, showed him respect, and entered the municipality. The group consisted of 15 people.

“As a Palestinian group, what would you like from us? What do you need?” he enquired. A woman named Linda Nasser, the mother of the former president of Birzeit University [in the West Bank] who was expelled by the Israelis to Amman, was part of the group. She said: “Before 1948 we were all Palestinians – Moslem, Christian, Jewish. We were sharing, eating together, and respecting each other, and living together in peace. After the Nakba, the Haganna threw us out, and we became refugees. She said: “Since we want to live in peace, let us return to our homes, and we will have peace.” The mayor was listening intently to hear what we had to say as Palestinians. He said: “As I am Jewish, I will help you.” We looked at each other and a bit of fear came into our hearts, but we were admiring him that he was Jewish and a mayor in Germany.

Upon our return we were afraid because we had told our Palestinian stories everywhere. Would they not create problems at the border for us? But no, we got a VIP treatment at the border leaving from Germany. Apparently, the mayor of Kuttingen had arranged this.

Nowadays, when traveling, there is no VIP treatment, to the contrary. Problems and humiliation are the rule.

Love Your Neighbor

Recently I went to console a lady by the name of Manal, whose father had passed away. She is an employee at the Society of Family Planning in Bethlehem where I volunteer since 38 years. When we arrived at her house, I asked her about the reason of her father’s death. Had he fallen ill, had something happened to him?

She started by telling that her father had worked for 25 years with a Jewish employer in Jerusalem. On the day of his passing away, he was heading for the checkpoint to enter Bethlehem where he lived. But just before his arrival he found out that he had forgotten his ID papers at work, as well as the money he needed for the taxi. So he asked a friend who accompanied him, “Please pay me for the taxi which I need to take to go back to my work in Jerusalem. They will never let me pass through the checkpoints without papers.” When he returned his Jewish boss offered to take him in his car to the checkpoint, but Manal’s father refused as he did not want to bother his boss. So he returned alone.

The weather was hot, and he was tired after a full day’s work. It seems all the way he was worrying about what happened with his papers. Then he fell on the ground and got a heart attack. A Jewish lady passed by and found him lying on the ground. She stopped her car and gave first aid. She called the ambulance and brought him to the hospital. However, after some time he died.

When Manal told this story about her father I had to think of the Biblical story about the Good Samaritan. Even your enemy can be a neighbor helping you in time of need.

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